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Article

Will Grundy

Pluto orbits the Sun at a mean distance of 39.5 AU (astronomical units; 1 AU is the mean distance between the Earth and the Sun), with an orbital period of 248 Earth years. Its orbit is just eccentric enough to cross that of Neptune. They never collide thanks to a 2:3 mean-motion resonance: Pluto completes two orbits of the Sun for every three by Neptune. The Pluto system consists of Pluto and its large satellite Charon, plus four small satellites: Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. Pluto and Charon are spherical bodies, with diameters of 2,377 and 1,212 km, respectively. They are tidally locked to one another such that each spins about its axis with the same 6.39-day period as their mutual orbit about their common barycenter. Pluto’s surface is dominated by frozen volatiles nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide. Their vapor pressure supports an atmosphere with multiple layers of photochemical hazes. Pluto’s equator is marked by a belt of dark red maculae, where the photochemical haze has accumulated over time. Some regions are ancient and cratered, while others are geologically active via processes including sublimation and condensation, glaciation, and eruption of material from the subsurface. The surfaces of the satellites are dominated by water ice. Charon has dark red polar stains produced from chemistry fed by Pluto’s escaping atmosphere. The existence of a planet beyond Neptune had been postulated by Percival Lowell and William Pickering in the early 20th century to account for supposed clustering in comet aphelia and perturbations of the orbit of Uranus. Both lines of evidence turned out to be spurious, but they motivated a series of searches that culminated in Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto in 1930 at the observatory Lowell had founded in Arizona. Over subsequent decades, basic facts about Pluto were hard-won through application of technological advances in astronomical instrumentation. During the progression from photographic plates through photoelectric photometers to digital array detectors, space-based telescopes, and ultimately, direct exploration by robotic spacecraft, each revealed more about Pluto. A key breakthrough came in 1978 with the discovery of Charon by Christy and Harrington. Charon’s orbit revealed the mass of the system. Observations of stellar occultations constrained the sizes of Pluto and Charon and enabled the detection of Pluto’s atmosphere in 1988. Spectroscopic instruments revealed Pluto’s volatile ices. In a series of mutual events from 1985 through 1990, Pluto and Charon alternated in passing in front of the other as seen from Earth. Observations of these events provided additional constraints on their sizes and albedo patterns and revealed their distinct compositions. The Hubble Space Telescope’s vantage above Earth’s atmosphere enabled further mapping of Pluto’s albedo patterns and the discovery of the small satellites. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew through the system in 2015. Its instruments mapped the diversity and compositions of geological features on Pluto and Charon and provided detailed information on Pluto’s atmosphere and its interaction with the solar wind.

Article

The polar regions of Mars contain layered ice deposits that are rich in detail of past periods of accumulation and erosion. These north and south polar layered deposits (NPLD and SPLD, respectively) contain primarily water–ice and ~5% and ~10% dust derived from the atmosphere, respectively. In addition, the SPLD has two known CO2 deposits—one thin unit at the surface and one buried, much thicker unit. Together, they comprise less than 1% of the SPLD volume. Mars also experiences seasonal deposits of CO2 that form in winter and sublimate in spring and early summer. These seasonal caps are visible from Earth and have been studied for centuries. Zooming in, exposed layers at the PLDs reveal histories of climate change that resulted when orbital parameters such as obliquity, eccentricity, and argument of perihelion changed over tens of thousands to millions of years. Simpler environmental conditions at the NPLD, especially related to seasonal and aeolian processes, make interpreting the history of that polar cap much easier than the SPLD. The history of Mars polar science is linked by numerous incremental advancements and unexpected discoveries related to the observed geology of both poles, the interpreted and modeled climatic conditions that gave rise to the PLDs, and the atmospheric conditions that modify the surface.

Article

Bryan J. Holler

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) officially recognizes five objects as dwarf planets: Ceres in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and Pluto, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake in the trans-Neptunian region beyond the orbit of Neptune. However, the definition used by the IAU applies to many other trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) and can be summarized as follows: Any non-satellite large enough to be rounded by its own gravity. Practically speaking, this means any non-satellite with a diameter larger than 400 km. In the trans-Neptunian region, there are more than 150 objects that satisfy this definition, based on published results and diameter estimates. The dynamical structure of the trans-Neptunian region records the history of the migration of the giant planets in the early days of the solar system. The semi-major axes, eccentricities, and orbital inclinations of TNOs across various dynamical classes provide constraints on different aspects of planetary migration. For many TNOs, the orbital parameters are all that is known about them, due to their large distances, small sizes, and low albedos. The TNO dwarf planets are a different story. These objects are large enough to be studied in more detail from ground- and space-based observatories. Imaging observations can be used to detect satellites and measure surface colors, while spectroscopy can be used to constrain surface composition. In this way, TNO dwarf planets not only help provide context for the dynamical evolution of the outer solar system, but also reveal the composition of the primordial solar nebula as well as the physical and chemical processes at work at very cold temperatures. The largest TNO dwarf planets, those officially recognized by the IAU, plus others like Sedna, Quaoar, and Gonggong, are large enough to support volatile ices on their surfaces in the present day. These ices are able to exist as solids and gases on some TNOs, due to their sizes and surface temperatures (similar to water on Earth) and include N2 (nitrogen), CH4 (methane), and CO (carbon monoxide). A global atmosphere composed of these three species has been detected around Pluto, the largest TNO dwarf planet, with the possibility of local atmospheres or global atmospheres at perihelion for Eris and Makemake. The presence of non-volatile species, such as H2O (water), NH3 (ammonia), and complex hydrocarbons, provides valuable information on objects that may be too small to retain volatile ices over the age of the solar system. In particular, large quantities of H2O mixed with NH3 point to ancient cryovolcanism caused by internal differentiation of ice from rock. Complex hydrocarbons, formed through radiation processing of surface ices, such as CH4, record the radiation histories of these objects and provide clues to their primordial surface compositions. The dynamical, physical, and chemical diversity of the more than 150 TNO dwarf planets are key to understanding the formation of the solar system and its subsequent evolution to its current state. Most of our knowledge comes from a small handful of objects, but we are continually expanding our horizons as additional objects are studied in more detail.